How plays can change lives

in action 'Theatre for Change', an initiative in Bengaluru, uses theatre to sensitise children on various social issues that plague today's society, l
Last Updated 30 January 2017, 19:40 IST

‘Theatre for Change’, an initiative in Bengaluru, uses theatre to sensitise children on various social issues that plague today’s society, learns R S Kumar.

Excitement glistens on the faces of 40 students in Class 9. The class is divided into two neat, rectangular sections of boys and girls, who do not dare to overstep the invisible line around their groups. Even as the eager pre-teens sneak curious looks at each other, they pretend that ‘the other’ gender just doesn’t exist. Shortly, the entire Class 9 of ACTS Nirmala Vidyalaya is turned into a sea of hungry eyes and open mouths, as almost 200 activities related to domestic violence unfold in front of them. By the end of the class, all the teenagers hold hands to enact group assignments.

“It is important to spread the message – that enough is enough,” says the teacher, counsellor and theatreperson, Sujatha Balakrishnan, firmly. That does seem to be enough to break the thin shell that holds each child in its grip — at least for the day. The tightness in the class has relaxed, the invisible wall between the genders gets partly dissolved and the students mingle, interact and engage in collective acts by the end of the hour.

At last, the children do agree that domestic or gender violence is a hushed phrase that they had earlier said never ‘happened’ to any of them, but then begin to openly acknowledge them as everyday realities. “The implicit biases that are within each one of us is brought to the forefront through these “gamesercises,” explains Sujatha. “I firmly believe that theatre should go beyond entertainment, engage the audience and transform them into change-makers.”

The belief in theatre became a project launched by Sujatha as a member of Soroptimist International (SI), a global Service Club of professional women. SI is involved in a number of socially relevant activities, aiming to help and upgrade the lives of people through education, health, physical wellness, mental balance and innumerable activities. Theatre is one of the latest expressions of its social involvement. In a year, students across Bengaluru and survivors of domestic violence at Saheli, a community-based women’s organisation in Boston, USA, among others, have addressed issues as diverse as domestic violence, ageism and inclusion of differently abled children.

The interesting point about the theatre project is the collectiveness of action. “Theatre through SI helps me to express, teach and learn in ways that I never thought I would,” says Anita Belagodu, an earnest counsellor and poet. She acknowledges that it is a fluid tool for transformation, therapy and self-healing.

Explains Sujatha, “By using Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatre format devised by Augusto Boal, which is all about power dynamics as an active platform to make children participate and address issues, I have been able to make a ‘SpectActor’ out of every ‘Spectator’.” Her apartment complex in Sanjay Nagar, Bengaluru, where she has roped in a number of children to spread awareness about the inclusion of differently-abled children, is a prime example of such power action.

Last year, she staged an awareness skit on special needs children. She asked them how the skit had transformed them. Maya, a teenager, answered that it has made her more sensitive to the needs of the differently abled. A parent, Latha Prasad, admits that the skit made a change in her daughter, Sanjana. She accepted the entire cast as her family and even insisted on attending practice sessions even after the show!

Multiple interpretations
Dr Nalini, SI founding member, talks about how theatre triggers off a beginning, an introduction to one’s self and to others. By the end of any such session, children are distilled into complex, dynamic concoctions, almost like chemical explosions. Hence, when during a weekend, the group takes its theatre activities to Parikrama, another school with five branches that offer English-medium education to the underprivileged, theatre helped to show that positing the oppressed and the oppressor against each other can mirror real life power dynamics. 

Sudha Manandi, a businessperson, addresses students directly in Kannada, not teaching them, but egging them to teach themselves. Not to be passive watchers, but actors, contributors and change-agents. One student is clear about what the theatre activity means to her. Lavanya, in Class 10, explains that she is happy to be guided, though she never feels that she is being preached to. Another child, Madhav, explains what it feels to be “controlled and claustrophobic” when activity simulates and mirrors his guide’s power. It is possible for such an activity to improve one’s focus, he says.

Most of the students agree that they are not ‘taught’ anything directly, but are just asked to participate, contribute and interpret. “There are no “teachings”, only conversations,” explains Sudha, a high school student. Activities bring in the interlink of physical and mental psychology that have to be awakened and connected, explains Mamta Ghosh, another businessperson and SI member. Through exercises, there are many variations in every activity, which is also called an “energiser.”

Two theatre formats, Image theatre and Forum theatre, are the highlight of these workshops. The former is all about multiple interpretations of images. The focus is on action and reaction, not words. After most plays, the students look charged and eager to reach out. The most interesting and gratifying reaction comes from Madhav, a student who gives a long speech about the main theme of domestic violence. However, he seems to miss the entire point of the one-time session through a simple question: “At what time is tomorrow’s theatre class?”

You too can participate in Theatre for Change, by joining SI in Bengaluru. You can contact SI at 9243002034 or send an e-mail to sibangalore10@gmail.com.

(Published 30 January 2017, 16:00 IST)

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